I’m not sure how often my kids listen to me. It’s a shame, because in between really profound messages such as, ‘Eat your broccoli’, and ‘Make your bed,’ I come up with the occasional gem.

So when the internet broke this week, in response to the Folau saga, it was a game-changer in our household. Instead of grumbling about homework or phones at the table, we had long dinner-time conversations about the issues it raised. About inclusion and diversity: that it’s okay to be unique. That our values should be reflective of how people behave, not who they are. That it’s important to think for ourselves and have an independent voice.

It’s topics like these that will be debated throughout Australia for weeks to come, transcending the starting point of sport and religion. And so for our collective conscience, if nothing else, we need to thank Israel Folau.

The matter started to unfold some weeks ago. Like any employee, Folau had the right to expect a safe and inclusive workplace with Rugby Australia, and in return he had obligations to meet.

For many years Australian sport has supported a range of freedoms including religious identity – witness the Bachar Houli Academy – and Folau, a practicing Christian, could happily have posted biblical tracts without anyone batting an eyelid.

Instead, he chose to publicise his own interpretation of a passage from the Corinthians, condemning the majority of our population to hell. The worst of Folau’s wrath, through his social media posts and subsequent church preachings, was directed at the LGBTI community.

Folau’s contract with Rugby Australia included the following clauses. That a player would:

“Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in rugby.”

“Use social media appropriately. By all means share your positive experiences of rugby but do not use social media as a means to breach any of the expectations or requirements of you as a player contained in this code.”

Rugby Australia considered that Folau’s Instagram post breached this code of conduct, and like anyone stepping outside the terms of their employment, he was sanctioned.

The penalty was severe. Given that Folau had reportedly already been warned, Rugby Australia chose to cut him loose from a four million dollar contract. It seems unlikely that any sporting body would do so in this day and age, without having a strong legal platform behind them.

Folau and his supporters interpreted his banishment as a contravention of his religious freedoms. Their argument is centred around Section 772 of the Fair Work Act, where an employer can’t use religion to terminate a worker’s contract. They believe he has been unfairly dismissed.

The matter looked set to play out in court when Folau, despite being one of Australia’s most highly paid athletes, sought three million dollars’ worth of financial support for his legal bills through the GoFundMe platform. Posting his appeal alongside critically ill children begging for medical support, Folau wrote that he was in, ‘The fight of my life.’

Even more ironical was the disclaimer at the bottom, which stated, “In making this contribution I acknowledge…that there will be no obligations on Israel Folau…to apply the funds in any particular way with respect to his legal action.” In layman’s terms, Folau could have dropped his beef with Rugby Australia the next day and walked away significantly richer.

The funding request dropped into the spotlight with all the force of an incendiary bomb, sparking emotions ranging from outrage to support. Using his profile and platform to raise funds for a mess seen to be of his own making, while already independently wealthy, was too much for many to swallow. The commentary from both sides of the equation was savage.

After several days of deliberation, and almost $750 000 raised, GoFundMe pulled the appeal down, and will credit the donors. Folau’s appeal contravened their terms and conditions, which clearly stated that the platform is not for campaigns deemed to be, “in support of, or for the legal defense of…intolerance of any kind relating to…sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity.”

Despite GoFundMe’s policy, a spokesperson for Folau maintains that the campaign was within terms and conditions, and that, “GoFundMe has buckled to demands against the freedom of Australians to donate to his cause.”

Since that time, the Australian Christian Lobby has set up an independent fundraiser for Folau, which will go towards funding his legal costs against Rugby Australia. It’s currently received donations in excess of $750 000.

Caught up in the mess is Maria Folau, Israel’s wife, who currently plays for the Adelaide Thunderbirds and in a matter of weeks will be a crucial part of Netball New Zealand’s World Cup campaign. From a marital perspective she should be able to stand by her husband, but needed to do so in a way that wouldn’t upset her own sporting world.

Her restrained response to his crowd funding appeal – confining herself to reposting his campaign with the word “Support” attached – probably signals that she’s fully aware of the thinnest of lines she’s treading.

Netball fans had mixed reactions to her repost: it was hard to know what outraged them the most – that her husband’s viewpoint had spilled into their code, or that a strong woman was allowing a man to speak for her. Given her ongoing employment, we may never learn whether Maria supports her husband, or she supports his views, and a gulf the size of Carpentaria can lie between the two.

In response to the situation, Netball South Australia, Netball Australia and Netball New Zealand all released press statements making it clear that while netball is inclusive, Maria’s use of her personal platforms hadn’t contravened any social media policies. It was a placatory approach and immediately drew the ire of netball great, Liz Ellis.

She tweeted, “Yeah nah not good enough. How about this: There is no room for homophobia in our game. Anyone who is seen to support or endorse homophobia is not welcome. As much as I love watching Maria Folau play netball I do not want my sport endorsing the views of her husband.”

Ellis makes a strong point about keeping homophobic views out of sport. The biggest damage done to anyone, other than Folau’s own career, has been to the LGBTI community. When athletes talk, people often listen. Folau is a significant role model for many, and with over 364 000 followers on Instagram alone, his words spread beyond his immediate sporting circles.

When Folau suggested that LGBTI people would go to hell unless they repented, and that transgender children were the ‘devil’s spawn’, he was seen to cross a line from freedom of religious expression to the persecution of others.  It’s hard to overestimate the damage that such words can potentially cause, from the psyche of the people he’s attacking, to the phobics he may incite further.

The LGBTI community has been marginalised for centuries due to societal attitudes, and as a result of this we know:

  • That one in four will be the victim of a hate crime,
  • That the suicide rate is five to eleven times higher, depending on an individual’s identity
  • That depressive illnesses are six times more likely to be experienced,
  • That up to 40% of homeless people are LGBTI,
  • That discrimination is 10 times higher than in the heterosexual population,
  • That 85% will be bullied at school.

While Folau has received strong support from the Australian Christian Lobby and a few church groups, there’s been an equal number of people prepared to challenge his beliefs.

It’s not just prominently gay athletes such as Samantha Kerr and Gareth Thomas that have opposed such fundamentalist views. Many people, and particularly athletes, who might otherwise have sat on the sidelines, have been drawn into the debate. Luminaries such as Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau and Liz Ellis have all spoken out.

While this discourse grew out of one man’s religious perspective, I believe that there will be far wider ramifications than Folau, or any of us, could have ever imagined. For many years Australia has patted itself on the back for being such a progressive nation, despite struggling with some crucial issues. Racism, diversity, domestic violence, and personal freedoms versus personal rights, to name a few, are all matters we continue to grapple with.

What we can learn from the aftermath of the Folau saga is that if people can respectfully debate real issues, rather than the latest Kardashian tweet, it’s positive. If people are more prepared to indict injustice, and stand up for others, it’s powerful. If we can promote that love and inclusion are divine, we’re rich.

During our dinner table discussion last night, I shared my beliefs with my kids. I told them that we all have our own beautifully unique paths to tread in life, and that we need to honour, respect and even celebrate our differences. Intolerance, apart from the usual teenage squabbles, has no place under our roof.

I just hope they were listening in.